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Money Messages

My daughter Maggie, 10, and I were walking down the sidewalk. We passed a boutique, and I said, "That's a cute store."

She said, "You're just saying that because the word 'sale' is in the window."

A week later. My daughter Lucy, 7, and I were buying a newspaper at a sidewalk kiosk. The vendor gave me the change, and a $5 bill blew out of my hand. I chased it half a block until I trapped it under my foot. When I looked up, I realized I was in the middle of the street. Lucy watched me from the corner. She said, "Is five dollars worth getting hit by a car, Mommy?"

Amazing, isn't it, how kids start using sarcasm so young? My daughters can be as snarky as media critics when it comes to my, shall we say, frugal tendencies. I laughed at their little jokes but also wondered if my parsimony was somehow influencing them in ways I couldn't predict or imagine.

That concern was confirmed a couple weeks later, when, encountering one of those low spots in household finances that are occurring more often -- and to so many of us -- these days, I started grumbling about our expenses and announced that a planned trip to Old Navy was now off. Maggie looked distressed and said, "Do we have enough money for food?"

Then Lucy spoke up: "Are we going to move to a bad neighborhood?"

I reassured them, but marveled at their Grand Canyon-wide leap from a postponed search for cute tops to destitution. And naturally, as a parent, I blamed myself. Not only were my kids keenly attuned to my cues, but they were misunderstanding them. And those misunderstandings might influence them as much as the cues themselves.

It's hard enough as a parent to do battle with our consumer culture, with shopping as leisure activity, sophisticated and highly targeted advertising, and product lines disguised as TV shows. We try to act as a filter, but we can't really control it. But I saw that I was also shaping my girls' ideas about money -- and that's something I do have control over.

Unwittingly or not, we set the tone for our children's relationship with money, and the way we spend and talk about it says a lot about our beliefs. "A parent's attitude about finances will affect the entire family and can have a big influence on her child's money values," says Sharon Danes, Ph.D., economist and professor in the department of family social science at the University of Minnesota.

This doesn't mean that there's a straight-line relationship between our money attitudes and our kids' financial futures. "The child of a gambler might become a risk taker in the stock market or decide he won't wager a penny and keep his money inside a mattress," says Rick Kahler, a financial planner in Rapid City, South Dakota, and coauthor of Conscious Finance. "Two kids, raised in the same house, observing the same parents, might turn out completely different."

But just because you can't control the future (or the economy!) doesn't mean you can't control the money messages you send in the present. Here, four common ones you might be depositing in your child's mental bank account -- and how to counter them.

Here's a clip of Parenting's Lisa Bain discussing "Money Messages" on The Today Show.

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